Harry Potter and the Prisioner of Azkaban

azkaban.jpgOnce Upon A Time, Pro game writer Dave Long wrote a review… I know Mr. Potter only by his film alter ego played with believable teen angst by Daniel Radcliffe. Up to now his cinema adventures struck me as wondrous but yet somehow by the numbers in their production. The first two films are almost televison-like but with bigger budgets and better acting. That’s not to say they aren’t good movies. They are just that, but they didn’t leave me with anything tangible to hold onto after I left. They weren’t memorable movies, they were just kind of there.

If that was all we got from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, it would probably have been enough for both his literary fans and film goers. Luckily, we get a lot more than that from this latest installment.

It’s another year at Hogwart’s for Harry and friends. Even less time is spent at “home” in this film but long enough to know that Harry’s life is just as bad as before. There’s some entertaining moments in the film’s first twenty minutes that help get things rolling but they’re ultimately kind of throw away effects and action pieces. The real movie doesn’t quite begin until Harry’s nearly on the train to school. We find out that Sirius Black has become the first to escape from Azkaban, a wizard’s prison, and that he is probably coming for Harry. Strange hovering beasts known as Dementors supply the foreboding figures overseeing all and trying to locate the escaped Black. They’re the Potter equivalent of Lord of the Rings’ Ringwraiths and it’s unclear whether they’re good or evil as things begin.

There’s a lot of twisting plot lines throughout the movie that find their way to a very nifty if a little unsatisfying conclusion. Along the way, the characters experience a wide range of emotions and situations that make this less a movie about magic and more a movie about people. That’s when fantasy is at its best and director Alfonso Cuaron does a fantastic job of keeping his characters in front of the action. We spend a lot less time with extraneous magical bits at Hogwart’s this year. Every sequence in class or outside of it builds toward the ultimate showdown which turns out to not be quite what we expect. That’s one of this film’s strengths for those that haven’t read the books. There is a well concealed surprise right below the surface of events and it’s not at all obvious, even after it’s revealed. You might find yourself putting two and two together as the film rushes forward to its finale.

That’s another place where Prisoner of Azkaban shines over its previous installments. This is a better made movie from top to bottom. There’s a lot more effective use of light and dark. Scenes are filmed from more unique angles that draw the eye to their character interplay while giving the straying look into the background more depth pulling everything together into a more vibrant overall tapestry. Effects sequences are for the most part very well produced other than a particularly gummy looking scene where Harry is obviously digitally rendered on the back of a beast. But that bit of incompetence aside, the overall feeling you’ll get from this one is that quality in both performance and presentation was paramount to its production.

Of course performance is one of the main reason we go to the cinema and you’d be hard pressed to find a sub par one among them in Azkaban. Harry is transfixing in his adolescence, experiencing an otherworldly adventure while at the same time just plain growing up. Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley plays scared and astonished better than just about any child actor before him but here he gets a chance to be a bit more than that and reaches the plateau surprisingly well. Only Emma Watson as Hermione is a little behind the boys with her performance but she still holds up well next to the likes of Gary Oldman, David Thewlis and the always slippery Alan Rickman. Potter gives these last three a great showcase for their talents and they never disappoint. Michael Gambon’s appearance as Dumbledore is absolutely jarring since Sir Richard Harris truly was the old sage in every way. But his work is admirable and by the end of the film you’ll be comfortable with him in the role wherever it goes from here.

This is a film about growing up that shows it not only in its characters but in its director and its presentation as well. With the kids getting older, even their daily lives are becoming more complicated. Right along with that, the film’s plot itself is more complex. These two things are inextricably tied together as the movie unfolds. Coupled with production values and camera work that shows a more mature and stylistic approach to filmmaking, you’re looking at an entire series of films that has grown by a rather large leap in the span of one two hour entry. So whether you’re a fan of the books or not, this is the best Harry Potter yet. You don’t have to love fantasy to enjoy it either. It’s a people movie with fantastic events.
Kid Factor: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban definitely skews a little older than the first two films. It’s a bit more talky, a lot faster paced at times and not so black and white just like Harry’s ever aging world. That aside, it’s probably not as “scary” as some of the scenes in the earlier films. Beware of having to explain a lot of the plot to your children but don’t hesitate to take them if they’ve already read the book or are good listeners. The film is a lot darker than the prior entries which will probably appeal even more to teens. Definitely worth the price of family admission with older children in tow and the little ones hanging out back at home with grandma.

Reviewer Recommended Ages: 10+
Genre: Sci Fi/Fantasy
MPAA Rating: PG – Parental Guidance Suggested
Distributor/Studio: Warner Bros.
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Reviewer: David J. Long

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